Read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey Online

Authors: The Countess of Carnarvon

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (10 page)

A portrait by Paul César Helleu on the occasion of Almina’s wedding, with her married signature.
(photo credit i1.16)

Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, in full regalia.

6
Dressing for Dinner

Lord and Lady Carnarvon set out for Christmas at Halton House a week after they had waved off their illustrious house guest, the Prince of Wales. Pleased with each other, themselves and the world, they had no reason to doubt that life would continue in its delightful round of balls, shoots and travels abroad, as far as they both could see. They were looking forward to being thoroughly spoiled by Alfred, who celebrated Christmas in style, despite being Jewish. It was an excuse for a party, and although he wasn’t going to participate in the religious aspects, the secular trimmings were there to be enjoyed. It was a predictably jolly occasion, with Carnarvon’s great friend Prince Victor Duleep Singh a fellow guest as well; a thoroughly multicultural and
eclectic gathering of people, all bent on celebrating their own good fortune as much as anything more pious.

The Carnarvons were regular visitors to Halton House throughout the early years of their married life. There was a permanent whirl of moving between Highclere, London, Bretby in Derbyshire and Pixton in Somerset, as well as foreign travel. Given Almina’s lifelong devotion to the city of her childhood, they went often to Paris, usually staying in the Ritz hotel, and popped out to the Bois de Boulogne for racing at Longchamps on a fine weekend.

For Lord Carnarvon it was a relatively sedate existence, compared to his long sailing missions to the other side of the globe. For Almina, though, the world was expanding faster and further than ever before. Young ladies simply did not travel as men did. They were kept indoors or close to home and groomed for the transition from their father’s home to their husband’s. Only now that she was Countess of Carnarvon could she diffuse some of her formidable energy in seeing a bit of the world. In the first ten years of her married life, Almina accompanied her husband to France, Italy, Germany, Egypt many times, America and the Far East.

When they were at Highclere or at their house in London, the Carnarvons were always entertaining. It was a curiously public existence compared to domestic life for most married couples today. They were hardly ever alone, and their house was always full of staff and guests. In the summer there were racing parties and tennis weekends; in the autumn there were shoots. All year long there were local fetes and garden parties and, to all of these functions, they invited the latest stars of the social scene, the newly married, the intriguing and the glamorous.

In May 1896, almost a year after their own marriage, they invited the newly wed Duke and Duchess of Marlborough to stay. Consuelo Vanderbilt was an American heiress of spectacular wealth, whom the 9th Duke had quite plainly married only for her money. She was a beautiful and charming woman, but the fact was that the couple loathed each other. They had both given up the people they really loved in order to marry each other, and Consuelo, who was only seventeen at the time, had been coerced into the marriage by her domineering mother. She later reported having cried behind her veil as she said her vows.

Consuelo spoke in almost hushed tones of her first London season, that summer of 1896. ‘Those who knew the London of 1896 and 1897 will recall with something of a heartache the brilliant succession of festivities.’ Part of those festivities, of course, were the inevitable weekend house parties, such as the one she attended at Highclere.

She and Almina were in oddly analogous positions. They were both beautiful young heiresses who had married into the aristocracy because of their family’s fortune and despite its roots in trade. They were both outsiders. Almina had been sidelined by her illegitimate status, Consuelo was constantly sneered at for being American and therefore hardly worthy to be a Duchess. But there the similarity ended. Consuelo was miserable before and throughout her marriage, and separated from the Duke of Marlborough in 1906. Almina was giddily in love on her wedding day and the Carnarvons had a happy and companionable marriage for many years.

Did the girls recognise something in each other that weekend? Did they talk about the mishaps they’d had in
the course of their apprenticeship in ‘Being a Chatelaine’? Consuelo always recalled that she was totally unprepared for the rigid observance of precedence in her new world. A Duchess was higher ranking than a marchioness, who came higher up than a Countess, but there were endless distinctions between Duchesses, marchionesses and Countesses, the age of each title had to be taken into account, and older women took precedence over younger ones, all of which could reshuffle everything into a different order. Once, at a party at Blenheim Palace, her husband’s seat, Consuelo was unsure of the sequence in which the ladies should be withdrawing from the dining room. Not wanting to appear rude, she dithered in the doorway, only to be shoved in the back by a furious Marchioness, who hissed at her, ‘It is quite as vulgar to hang back as to jump ahead.’

Perhaps it was a relief to speak to someone who understood that alongside the luxury and privilege was the constant pressure not to do ‘The Wrong Thing’, since few people in that strictly codified world would have been prepared to laugh it off. And all the conventions only served to remind them that with the rank came the risk that all trace of their individuality would be swept away. Almina and Consuelo were adjusting to the fact that their personal wishes and desires were considerably less important than the main tasks in hand: producing an heir for the estate and enacting their roles as great ladies.

It would have been hard even to find a moment to have that conversation, since privacy was virtually impossible to come by when there could be up to eighty people in the house. But the impulse to share secrets and stories is strong and, in any case, new ways to get round the conventions
were always being devised. It was considered improper to play games on the Lord’s day, for example, so it became fashionable for the ladies to spend their Sunday afternoons walking in pairs, for
tête-à-tête
conversations. Social prestige could be measured by how many invitations to walk a lady received. Part of the appeal must surely have been that the strolls through the beautiful park afforded the opportunity to speak frankly, or at least more frankly than in the drawing room taking tea.

Hosting a weekend party was liable to produce endless opportunities to slip up, or to overlook a crucial detail. Almina had acquitted herself splendidly at her baptism of fire, the Prince of Wales’s visit back in December, but the frantic activity and expense attest to a certain level of anxiety as well as exuberance. She might have tried to reassure the new Duchess, with the benefit of her extra six months’ experience and her greater familiarity with English customs. Her advice would have come in handy a few months later, when the Duchess had to host her first shooting party at Blenheim, once again in honour of the Prince of Wales.

The marriage between Consuelo and Marlborough was already becoming a byword for loveless but lucrative arrangements at the time of the couple’s visit to Highclere. Almina’s curiosity and sympathy might have led to a few enquiries as the girls strolled. Unfettered gossip would not have been on the agenda, though. Everything about Almina suggests that she was deeply conscious of her own dignity. She had only just arrived at such an exalted position that she could be arm-in-arm with a Duchess, and neither girl would have wanted to be grouped together as the outsiders or to commit the cardinal sin of indiscretion. Almina was sensitive to any
insinuation that she was letting herself down. Shame was a powerful inhibitor and could be experienced by proxy, as her son later attested.

But for now, Almina had no reason to worry about anything. She had been welcomed into the family with open arms, for the breezy energy she brought to the Earl’s life, and of course for the immense amount of good that her wealth could do for the estate. A house such as Highclere, not to mention the other properties, was a responsibility as well as a privilege. The sense of custodianship that came with the inheritance meant that – to a large extent – the Castle owned the family, rather than the other way around. Almina was key to securing its future, and she knew it.

Quite apart from relieving everyone’s anxiety about bills and maintenance, Almina’s fortune allowed improvements on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the 3rd Earl pulled down the old house. She didn’t hesitate in calling again upon Sir Alfred’s generosity to make Highclere one of the best-equipped and most comfortable private houses in the country.

It took the best part of six months, much of which Lord and Lady Carnarvon spent in London so as to be out of the way of the works, and cost Alfred de Rothschild many thousands of pounds, but in 1896, electric light arrived at the Castle. Almina took the opportunity to have more bathrooms installed as well. There were numerous water closets by the mid-1890s, not only adjoining the family’s and guests’ bedrooms, but also in the servants’ working and sleeping quarters.

Highclere was transformed into a beacon of modernity: the shadows were banished and a huge amount of labour was saved. The whole house was wired, including the
kitchens, sculleries, cellars and servants’ hall and sitting rooms. Between the electric light and the running water in the bathrooms, there was a significant easing in the household’s centuries-old work schedule. The lamp-men were saved the nightly ritual of lighting over a hundred oil lamps, and the housemaids no longer had to struggle upstairs with enough hot water for everyone to bathe in freestanding tubs.

Elsie, the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, found the introduction of the lights and the water systems a huge practical improvement to the house she had once run. Elsie was a supremely good-natured and capable person, never in her life inclined to complain about anything. She had proved herself an ally back during Almina’s engagement and continued to advise and help out on her occasional visits. On 10 June 1896, at Buckingham Palace, she presented her successor to the Princess of Wales, who was standing in for Queen Victoria. This occasion marked Almina’s formal introduction to the Court in her new role as Countess of Carnarvon. It was three years since the last time Almina had curtseyed in front of a representative of her monarch and her life had been transformed in the interim.

By 23 June 1897, almost two years since their wedding day, Almina was feeling confident enough at event planning to invite 3,000 local schoolchildren and 300 of their teachers to spend the afternoon in the grounds of Highclere Castle. The occasion was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The Queen had been on the throne for an unprecedented sixty years, and there were celebrations across the land. In the depths of her almost total seclusion from public life she had
been unpopular, becoming a symbol of a stubborn refusal to move with the times. Britain’s republican movement had its only moment of real public support. But her Golden and then her Diamond Jubilee increased the Queen’s popularity again; and, in any case, popular or not, there was protocol to observe: the Earl and Countess would not be shown up through inadequate festivities. More specially-commissioned trains to Highclere were laid on to transport people, and a mile-long procession wound through the woods and park, accompanied by the marching bands from Newbury. Fortunately it was a beautiful day and Almina had organised swingboats and other entertainments, as well as a sumptuous tea, all laid out on trestle tables beneath the cedar trees on the lawns around the Castle.

Two weeks later on 2 July, the Earl and Countess attended a fabulously lavish celebration, the Duchess of Devonshire’s Jubilee Costume Ball, given at Devonshire House on Piccadilly. The invitation stipulated that costumes should be allegorical or historical from a period pre-1820 and, judging by some of the surviving photos of guests, no opportunity to dazzle was passed up. Lady Wolverton, for example, was dressed as Britannia, complete with a breastplate over her flowing white dress, plumed helmet, trident and shield emblazoned with the Union flag. Mrs Arthur Paget made a very fetching Cleopatra and Prince Victor Duleep Singh was much admired as the Moghul Emperor Akbar.

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